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'Doom and gloom' projected for Balto. Co. schools funding

Even after slashing nearly 200 teaching positions, Baltimore County schools are facing another projected budget shortfall for next year and will have to make millions of dollars in cuts, the school board learned Saturday.

Baltimore County schools chief financial officer Barbara S. Burnopp delivered the dire financial news to the board during a morning retreat. She said the shortfall could range anywhere from $10.9 million to $24.4 million.

"Last year, I gave a scenario that was about doom and gloom. … The bad news is that I am saying fiscal year 2013 will be no different," Burnopp told board members. "The economy is all over the place. … We know it will not be a strong economy."

Burnopp said she could not envision a scenario in which teachers and other employees would receive cost-of-living pay raises, and she projected deeper, undetermined cuts to the budget. She also said the school system will need to renegotiate its health care agreement with the teachers' union, including discussions about dropping the amount of health care costs paid for by the schools from 90 percent to 80 percent.

"There will have to be redirections and cost reductions," she said of the next budget, which will take effect next July.

School board President Lawrence E. Schmidt called the issue the "biggest challenge" facing the board this year, and board member David Uhlfelder, a certified public accountant who sits on a board that advises the county government on financial matters, added that the school system should not expect any more money from the county, given weak projections for taxes raised from home sales.

"The county will not find any new revenue," he said.

Burnopp presented the board with three projections that ranged from "best-case" to "worst-case" scenarios, saying, "The best-case scenario is not a very nice scenario."

Under the worst projection, the schools budget would fall $24.4 million short, she said.

Even under the best conditions, the school system would still spend $10.9 million more than it has, board members learned.

The county schools have relied on $26 million and $3.8 million, respectively, in federal stimulus funds in the past two years, but will receive no stimulus money in the next budget, Burnopp said. She also expects less federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students — which has decreased from $33.4 million to $22.4 million over the past two years and should be "significantly less" in the next budget, she said. At the same time, the school system projects that it will add 236 students and that fuel costs will continue to rise. School officials are also preparing for the possibility that the state could shift more responsibility to fund teacher pensions onto the counties, Burnopp said.

County schools saved $15.1 million in the last budget cycle by cutting 194 teaching positions. The system was able to avoid layoffs and reduced the number of positions by not rehiring as teachers left the system. The system has added three dozen new employees to the business side of its operations at salaries that total $1.9 million.

A Baltimore Sun analysis showed the school system could have saved as many as 42 teaching positions and kept class sizes lower if it had frozen hiring for nonschool-based jobs in January, when it was clear that spending reductions would be necessary. The school system instead hired administrators, curriculum supervisors, technology experts, grounds workers, accountants and others, amounting to $1.9 million in annual salaries. Of the 35 people added, $1.2 million was spent to hire 11 employees who make more than $80,000 apiece, including a deputy superintendent, Renee Foose, whose salary is $219,000.

Burnopp said Saturday that cutting into administration could not make up the projected deficit.

"That's not large enough to solve the school system's budget problems," she said of the portion of the budget dedicated to funding administrators and their salaries.

Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston noted his office was able to avoid laying off any teachers or placing any on furlough last budget cycle, even with similarly dire predictions. He said he's committed to honoring agreed-upon contracts with the teachers union and preventing layoffs.

lbroadwater@tribune.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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